Of what utilitarian value is it, Bobbitt asked, for students to study the literature of long-gone centuries? How would a 20th-century plumber’s knowledge of Shakespeare’s drama or poetry benefit society? Beyond the basic science training necessary to help a farmer grow crops, how would his understanding of physics or mathematics aid society? For what social purpose should we teach a future factory worker ancient history? Such a field “deals with a world that is dead, a civilization that is mouldered, with governments that are now obsolete, with manners and customs and languages that are altogether impracticable in this modern age.”
Bobbitt’s 1918 book, Curriculum, was for years the standard textbook on the subject in the teachers’ colleges.
His fellow curriculum designer, W. W. Charters at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, shared this view. He disdained the study in schools of “the works of the masters.” Such “brilliant products of genius” were of little value to most Americans, he thought. Instead, curriculum designers should discover what was “most useful to the young in coping with the humble problems of their lives.” The schools should identify a student’s likely future profession and train him for it.
For example, if a student would most likely become a department store clerk specializing in credit applications, the schools should train him in the requisite skills, including “friendliness,” “ability to question tactfully,” “spirit of follow-up,” “keen judgment in answering credit questions,” and so forth.
The topics taught in the American schools should be calculated neither to bestow upon a student knowledge of academic subjects nor to nurture his intellect, but, rather, to prepare him for the “humble” problems and activities of everyday life as a cog in his community.
Then came the so-called Cardinal Principles, which codified into one small pamphlet the new “scientific” approach to American schooling.
In 1912, the secretary of the interior instructed the U.S. Bureau of Education to thoroughly revamp American schooling. The government agency, in conjunction with the National Education Association (NEA), appointed the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education (CRSE). The CRSE issued the new “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education” in 1918. To this day, a full century later, it remains the foundational document of modern American education.
Moving forward, the report declared, the schools would “concern themselves less with academic matters than with the preparation for effective living”—that is, for playing one’s part in the scientifically engineered society. This meant curtailing courses that would enable students to reason independently and amplifying those that would imbue students with a passion for pursuing the “common good.”
There were seven “cardinal principles” (or “main objectives”) to be emphasized henceforth in American schools. One was “Health,” which involved the schools in teaching personal hygiene and emphasizing a “love for clean sport.”
A second was “Command of Fundamental Processes,” which involved teaching basic cognitive skills. In regard to this objective, Professor Richard Mitchell, the famed “Underground Grammarian,” comments, “About the other ‘main objectives,’ they have a lot to say… . When they have called for Command of Fundamental Processes, that’s it. They proceed at once to Worthy Home-membership, a main objective much more to their liking.” Because Command of Fundamental Processes was the only objective to refer specifically to academic education, the Progressive educators deemed it insufficiently important to warrant further elaboration.